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Everywhere in the world: Part Two



I was talking recently about my memory-collection of Eiffel buildings, constructed by the Eiffel company out of kits of iron components that they would ship out to anywhere in the world. In my collection is the Elevador, a kind of cabin that climbs railway tracks to take you up and down a big hillside in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. But I’ve also collected two Eiffel buildings in Peru. One of these is a bridge in Arequipa, the other, the Iron House, the headquarters of a nineteenth-century rubber company in Iquitos in Peruvian Amazonia. (Some time ahead I shall be writing about my time up the Amazon; you see, readers, to get a sense of what the world looks like, you don’t have to travel, you just have to read thepost. And of course to watch wonderful Sir David Attenborough on TV). Can’t resist here a jaw-dropping quotation from Sir David’s recent series The Mating Game. Long-suffering editor mutters: “you do ramble, don’t you?”) Over film of the sexual congress of a particularly horrible-looking marine creature, Sir David narrates: “Some people call them snot worms, others call them mud devils. Of course their better-known name is hell benders.” It’s the “of course” that makes that line vintage Sir David. Now, finally, dear readers (and my long-suffering editor) back to a few more memories of my three years in Libya. I mentioned earlier that Gar Younis University, Benghazi, where I worked, was on the Mediterranean coast. One of my colleagues, Szymon, would go underwater fishing there, shooting eels with a spear-gun. These would be cooked by his wife, Roma. I wasn’t into the fishing bit, but I bought a snorkel, so I could dive under and watch Szymon hunting. As the rocks and sea plants were quite beautiful, I thought of buying an underwater camera and turning my hand to marine photography, but never, alas, got around to it. Mention of Szymon and Roma brings me to Christmas Eve. Christian proselytising and missionary activity were banned in Gaddafi’s Libya, but Christians were permitted to worship. In Benghazi there was one church, which was used by different denominations on a rota basis. One Christmas Eve, midnight mass was allocated to the Polish Orthodox community and Szymon and Roma took me along. Great excitement, there was a member of the congregation who could intone the relevant bits in Glagolitic (old Slavonic). Really awe-inspiring, with his deep bass voice. When the service ended and we were queuing up to leave, we heard a hubbub of voices out in the street. We felt a little nervous, as in Libya absolutely anything could happen at any time. It turned out that local residents had set up stalls outside the church and were waiting to offer us, as gifts, wonderful Arab tea and coffee and sweet pastries, to help us celebrate the birth of Issa (Jesus). Sheer goodness is a constant you will find all over the world. From the sublime to the ridiculous. Every year on September 1st the Gaddafi revolution was celebrated. On television a pair of fourth-rate pop singers from Malta would gurgle their way through a dismal number called “on that day in September…”). There would be parades, Kremlin-style, showing off military equipment. And then one year some bright spark on a Revolutionary Committee (and “bright spark” is an ironic phrase meaning “idiot”) had the less-than-inspiring idea of inviting schoolchildren to make collages celebrating the achievements of the Great Brother Leader. A collage is an art-work made from assembling little cut-outs from newspapers, magazines, whatever, and combining them to make a design that can be visually pleasing / exciting and also thought-provoking. The Libyan kids’ efforts were put on display in one of the city gardens. And provoked nothing but hilarity. One I remember well had the head and chest of Gaddafi emerging from a flower-pot, like some kind of exotic plant (I wouldn’t want him growing in my garden). Chris Dunton

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